Sunday, April 03, 2005

Summitt's Intensity Stokes Tennessee's Fire

Normally, coaching milestones come packaged with an inevitable discussion about retirement - particularly when the milestone becomes as weighty as 880 victories - and people begin wondering aloud how much longer the coach in question can muster the energy for the job.

Except when the coach in question is Tennessee's Pat Summitt.

Summitt, the coach with the most N.C.A.A. victories in college basketball, flew past that career marker on March 22 the way an express train goes by a local station. She passed the former North Carolina coach Dean Smith with a sincere but decidedly brief acknowledgement.

If you caught even a few seconds of her on the sideline at any game in this year's N.C.A.A. women's tournament, waving her arms, shouting instructions and willing her team through every possession on the way to this weekend's Final Four in Indianapolis, retirement is not a word that leaps to mind.

"We just talked on the phone, and I said, 'You'll still be coaching when you're 80 years old,' " said Michelle Marciniak, a former player of Summitt's and now an assistant coach at South Carolina. "She said, 'You think so?'

"She still has that fire. She'll put that number way over 1,000. Definitely."

Part of the reason is that Summitt started racking up victories when she was 22 and Tennessee handed her its fledgling program while she was still playing basketball. So she has eclipsed Smith at the age of 52. Smith, who coached 36 seasons, retired with his 879 victories at age 66.

The other reason is that Summitt's 882 victories, offset by 171 defeats, have not begun to sap her trademark intensity. Ask her players if she has mellowed over time and they often respond by laughing.

"If you looked up passion, if you looked up focus in the dictionary, you'd find the definition of her," Joan Cronan, Tennessee women's athletic director, said. "That's what she is all about. And it's my job to keep her here coaching."

In her 31 seasons at Tennessee, Summitt has become the standard by which dynasty-makers are judged. This is the 16th time she has led the Lady Vols to the Final Four, and she is trying to add to six N.C.A.A. titles, starting with tonight's national semifinal against Michigan State. Summitt has averaged 28 victories and 5 losses a season.

She has done it in her now-famous style: hard-driving and intense during games and practices, genteel and gracious when they end.

Although she has changed little, her sport has been transformed. It was not until Summitt's eighth season, 1981-82, that the National Collegiate Athletic Association began running a women's tournament or had a Final Four. Before that, she reached the championship round of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament four times.

Summitt was hired in 1974, shortly after she graduated from Tennessee at Martin. She was trying to recover from a knee injury so she could play on the 1976 Olympic team. The job - which was supposed to be as an assistant coach to Margaret Hudson, who unexpectedly decided to pursue a doctorate instead - was attractive to Summitt largely because she could use the university's facilities to rehabilitate and stay in shape. She was hardly prepared to start a program.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed and scared to death, but I said yes," Summitt recalled last week before the N.C.A.A.'s Philadelphia Regional final. "I'm glad I said yes."

Under A.I.A.W. rules, she was not allowed to recruit players, so she picked her team from campus tryouts. There were no scholarships. Tickets were free. She had no trainer. She drove the van to away games, which were against local teams, taped her players' ankles and turned the gym lights off when she was done. Her assistants received no salary and hers was $250 a month.

Now, her shoes are likely to cost $250.

"It was just a step up from an intramural level," she said. "I remember when we got to go to Rock Hill, S.C. We thought we were headed for New York."

She won in that era, and all the ones to follow. None of the changes fazed her. When the N.C.A.A. supplanted the A.I.A.W., Summitt became the best recruiter, stocking her team in Knoxville with national talent.

As the players became more athletic and played at a faster pace, Summitt adjusted. The field of top teams grew, and Summitt kept her program at or near the head of the pack: 14 of her last 19 teams have reached the Final Four.

She now has former players taking over programs. Point guard Kellie Jolly, now Kellie Harper, coached Western Carolina to a first-round loss to Tennessee in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Summitt has had at least some effect on the careers of many of today's women's coaches.

"What people will remember her for are the championships," said Marciniak, whom Summitt has counseled on her career. "But the people close to her will remember her for influencing lives. She has helped so many people and keeps in touch with a lot of her players. It means a lot to her."

Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie, who will coach against Summit tonight, used Summitt as a reference on her résumé when she was trying to get a head coaching job while an assistant at Auburn. Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson played for Summitt on the 1984 Olympic team and said she turned to Summitt for advice on how to mix coaching and motherhood. (Summitt's son, Tyler, is 14; Mulkey-Robertson now has a daughter and a son.)

"I think Pat is a terrific person, a fabulous coach, and I just think what she's done for women's basketball, it's so hard to talk about because it's just so incredible and will never be duplicated," McCallie said after a practice last week.

This group of coaches will ensure a genteel atmosphere between games at this Final Four, in sharp contrast to last year's. Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, on his way to a third straight national title, had made a public show of hostility to Summitt in recent seasons that seemed to come to a head last year.

Summitt, who talks about other coaches with a reflexive congeniality, was at a loss. She would not retaliate, and in fact endlessly praised Auriemma's team and its accomplishments. But by the end of the Final Four, having lost to UConn in the championship game, Summitt looked unusually drained.

That struggle seemed to take its toll on the normally imperturbable Summitt, but with a new crop of freshman talent headed to Knoxville, she found her peace with it and moved on. "Our expectations are so high here," Cronan said. "Last year we had a team that was an overachiever. It was not our most talented team. I think once she had a chance to step back, Pat realized that, too. It may have been one of her best coaching jobs ever."

With UConn having lost in the Round of 16, Summitt enters this Final Four as the unchallenged center of attention, last year's loss a distant memory, her record victory total the topic of the tournament.

And the coach in question shows no sign of letting that express train slow down.

"I've never seen anything like her," Marciniak said.

Retirement will have to wait.

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